A victim of tradition

Advances have been made by society in the past 10 years in
recognising various forms of family violence, including physical
child abuse. Legislation has been passed and organisations created
to detect, treat and prevent these issues. However, individual
perceptions of what constitutes physical abuse of children varies
markedly along cultural lines, as a study of the British Pakistani
community shows.

Physical punishment or means of chastisement are not uncommon
within British Pakistani families. The results showed that within
the physical punishment and abuse categories, slapping was the most
common form of punishment, followed by punching and spanking.
However, 72 per cent of respondents who were spanked in childhood
and 41 per cent who were slapped accepted it as an appropriate
disciplining method. The highest proportion of the physical
punishment was meted out by a sibling, followed by mothers and then
by fathers. Non-physical forms of punishment were mostly received
from the mother and then from the father.

The results also suggest that parents from skilled and semi-skilled
classes were less nurturing and used more frequent and harsh
disciplining measures (such as slapping, spanking, mothers hitting
with shoe) than parents from professional backgrounds.

It was significant that most of the study’s respondents considered
even non-physical disciplining as an abuse when it was received
from a sibling. Inter-sibling abuse has largely remained
unrecognised so far, often excused as part of the normal process of
growing up or as sibling rivalry.

However, it is important not to overgeneralise. The entire British
Pakistani community is not routinely using extreme forms of
corporal punishment to discipline their children.

According to this research – carried out as part of a PhD thesis –
25 per cent of respondents did not suffer any kind of physical
punishment during their childhood and adolescence, and 11 of the
“severe punishment” categories were not reported by any respondent.
These findings suggested that serious physical child abuse by
parents in this community was not widespread.

Parental authority, children’s obedience and respect for the
parents are major values within the British Pakistani family. A
large number of adult respondents were in favour of physical
punishment as an appropriate response to misbehaviour.

They viewed physical punishment (within limits) as an effective
means of providing consistent guidance and discipline. However,
Thoburn and colleagues indicated that there was a lack of clarity
about the boundaries that lay between disciplining and physical
child abuse.1

Attempting to understand the reasons why a parent has used physical
chastisement is important. The most common causes described by the
respondents for physical abuse were being married, having a
relationship with the opposite sex, lack of communication between
generations, a cultural acceptance of physical abuse and offspring
going against their parents’ will or rebelling.

These causes are linked with the concepts of honour and shame,
persistent values which many Asian Muslim families will go to any
length to keep intact. But, for victims of abuse, the concept of
honour and shame is little more than a form of social control
intended to protect the abuser.2

The central conclusion of the research is that, generally, British
Pakistani parents’ perceptions of what is acceptable, or
unacceptable and harmful, are shaped by their own personal
standards and customs of their culture. A lack of awareness about
the expectations and standards set by mainstream British society
means that Pakistani and south Asian parents continue to practise
the methods they brought from their homeland.

On the basis of the findings, this research identifies some of the
major areas where improvement can be made to protect British
Pakistani children from physical child abuse or harmful and
degrading treatment. There is a need to help children and young
people who might have experienced physical punishment, and to help
parents to break their learned patterns of child rearing in order
to develop healthy relationships. That could be achieved by
providing education in parenting skills and training for Pakistani
parents – especially mothers.

Particularly useful would be help for British Pakistani families to
look at different methods of discipline. However, a major issue for
Asian parents is lack of trust in statutory organisations. Much of
the Asian community views social services and large charities such
as the NSPCC as unco-operative and liable to remove children from
their families.

Trust needs to be built by shifting the balance from child
protection intervention to preventive and family support services
for Asian parents. This can be best achieved by putting resources
in to Asian voluntary sector organisations.

The results of the study indicate that cultural and religious
differences contribute to the anxiety that many British Pakistani
parents feel about raising children in western mainstream society.
In many areas, there are few support services or resources
available to Muslim parents and young people which offer an Islamic
paradigm to understand and build bridges within the family and
outside it. Local authorities need to invest in and encourage these
resources, as they would not only enrich family life but would also
enable practitioners and British Pakistani families to work
together without suspicion.

The study strongly supports the recommendation made by Dutt that
Asian researchers and professionals need to talk about the abuse in
Asian communities, because nobody else will do it for

We cannot afford to wait for the damage to happen and then correct
it. All children have the right not to be assaulted by anyone.

The research used an interpretive approach. The
empirical work consisted of:

  • A questionnaire survey which focused on British Pakistani
    people aged 16-25, exploring their experiences in childhood of
    physical punishment and physical child abuse.
  • Content analysis of three radio phone-in programmes to
    understand the beliefs, systems, expectations and values of family
    life and perceptions of physical abuse and child protection in the
    south Asian community.
  • Semi-structured interviews with three Asian voluntary
    organisations to examine their role, understanding and perception
    of physical child abuse within the British Pakistani

Shazia Irfan is policy officer, cultural diversity,
Leicester City Council social care and health directorate. Tel:
0116 225 4725.


1 J Thoburn, A Lewis and D
Shemmings, Paternalism or Partnership? Family Involvement in
the Child Protection Process
, 1995, London, HMSO 

2 A J Haider, Child
Abuse and Islam
, presented to World Association of Muslim
Mental Health Conference, 2002 

3 RDutt and M Phillips,
“Assessing Black Children in Need and their Families”, in
Assessing Children in Need and their Families: Practice
, Department of Health, London, 2000, The Stationery

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